Dr Leahy provides strategies for letting go of your negative thoughts about unemployment:
Letting Go of those Negative Thoughts
If you are out of work you probably spend a lot of time dwelling on a stream of painful thoughts that keep coming up, making you feel even worse. You sit by yourself and think, ‘How could this happen to me?’, ‘What went wrong?’, ‘This feels so bad’, ‘I can’t figure out what to do’ . . . You may sit for hours living in the negative chatter in your head. If you are doing this – even if it’s for ten minutes – then you are ‘ruminating’. Cows ruminate when they chew their cud and you ruminate when you keep chewing over your thoughts.
The problem with rumination is that it generally leads to depression. And it keeps you depressed. When you are out of work it’s tough enough – so why would you want to do something that will make you feel worse? Are you a masochist? Do you want to suffer?
No. You ruminate for three reasons. First, you don’t even notice that you are ruminating and so you don’t realise you have a choice. Second, you think that rumination will lead to an answer – it will answer the ‘why’ question: ‘Why am I unemployed?’ And, third, you may think that rumination will motivate you to make a change. All of these are strategies that are unnecessary and unhelpful.
What can you do?
First, keep track of your rumination. Make a chart. Check off every hour that you ruminate for more than five minutes. This will make you more aware that you are wasting your time with useless, negative thoughts.
Second, write down what you think the benefits are of ruminating, because you’re bound to think there are some. You may think that your rumination will clarify things, give you the answer, motivate you or show that you are responsible. Whatever. Be honest. You are not doing this because you want to suffer. You are ruminating because you think there is some hidden benefit. Now, what are the costs of ruminating? Does it make you feel sad, anxious, does it keep you from enjoying the present moment, does it make you more irritable? Do the costs outweigh the benefits? Would you send a friend a New Year’s card saying, ‘I hope you ruminate more this year’?
Third, ask yourself if your rumination will lead to any productive action. Will it bring you pleasure, get you a job, improve your relationship with your partner? Or is it simply a waste of time?
Finally, set aside a specific time and place to ruminate. Call this your ‘Rumination Time’. Let’s say you set aside thirty minutes in the afternoon. If you have any ruminations earlier or later than that, write them down and make an appointment to revisit them during Rumination Time. You may think that this is a crazy idea, but it works. Most people find that they are able to set aside these thoughts and when they get around to them they realise that they’re having the same thoughts over and over. They’re a waste of time.
What’s not a waste of time? Productive behaviour, solving real problems, getting skills, networking, interviewing, playing with your kids, having fun. Living your life in between jobs means letting go of a stream of negative thoughts that don’t need answers. You don’t have to respond to every thought that shows up on the doorstep.
Dr Robert L. Leahy is the Director of The American Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Clinical Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at Weill-Cornell University Medical School. His book Keeping Your Head After Losing Your Job is out now.